The London Underground was the world’s first subterranean railway network. Remaining one of the largest in existence, today it transports around four million passengers a day on over one hundred miles of underground track. While this impressive network is regularly experienced by residents and visitors alike, there is another landscape of tunnels buried beneath the surface that remains inaccessible to the public. Crisscrossing the tube network is a web of abandoned stations, military tunnels, historic catacombs, sewers and hidden rivers. For years many of these subterranean spaces have been closed to the public but as the trend for more unusual urban adventures grows, we are finding more and more of these spaces reopening.
This year the London Transport Museum is putting on another round of its hugely popular Hidden London tours, which sell out in a matter of days. Their disused underground sites include Churchill’s secret station, Down Street, the Piccadilly line station used by the Cabinet during the Second World War. Located in Mayfair between Green Park and Hyde Park Corner, Down Street had a short life as a working station from 1907 to 1932, but became critical to winning the Second World War when it was covertly transformed into the Railway Executive Committee’s bomb-proof bunker. On the tour the visitor is taken on a journey through a warren of narrow tunnels where the nation’s railways were coordinated and Prime Minister Winston Churchill took refuge secretly at the height of the Blitz. Another of the subterranean sites available to tour involves a descent of 180 steps to one of the eight deep-level shelters that exist across London. Opened to the public in July 1944, Clapham South deep-level shelter has over a mile of subterranean passageways that reveal the extraordinary stories of those who sheltered here, from Londoners seeking refuge during the Blitz, to hopeful Caribbean migrants arriving on the Empire Windrush, and even thrifty visitors to the Festival of Britain.
This year another rare site will be opening to the public. Located deep beneath the streets of the capital, London’s secret 100-year-old Post Office railway is officially opening its (lift) doors. Known as Mail Rail, the Royal Mail operated a narrow gauge railway, a subterranean network of automated trains, to ferry post between sorting offices. The service began in 1927 and ran until 2003, when the project was no longer considered viable due to escalating running costs. Opening once again as part of the new British Postal Museum and Archive, a section of the network has been resurrected. An operating train will transport visitors through the hidden history of Mail Rail deep underground.
Mail Rail’s pioneering tunnels kept the capital’s communication network flowing for over 75 years. Extending for 6.5 miles, the network linked six sorting offices with the mainline stations at Liverpool Street and Paddington. At its peak, the service operated for 22 hours a day, employing over 220 staff and transporting more than four million letters invisibly below ground every day. All of this happening deep beneath the streets of London, hidden from public view. In fact, these tunnels were so clandestine in their early days, that they were even used to hide the Rosetta Stone during the First World War. Now, through a series of new interactive exhibits, this history, the stories of the people behind the railway, will all be revealed.
These tunnel tours are thrilling not just because of their hidden nature, the unusual spatial experience of heading deep beneath London’s surface, but through the exposure of a world locked in the past. These constructions, sealed at the point of closure, are frozen in time. Layers of historical artefact buried with them, they create an immersive experience that transports the visitor to another time – that last day in service.
However it is not just our historic infrastructure projects that are providing a gateway to time travel. Our more recent tunnel constructions are also helping to reveal the layer cake of history that is hidden below the city’s streets. The construction of London’s newest railway project, Crossrail, has given archaeologists a unique chance to reveal some of the city’s most historically important sites. The new railway runs east to west through some of the capital’s most significant historical areas. As a result, Crossrail has undertaken one of the most extensive archaeological programmes ever seen in the UK, unearthing archaeological finds from almost every important period of London’s history. Over 100 archaeologists have found more than 10,000 items from 40 sites, spanning 8,000 years of human history.
The finds uncovered so far include prehistoric animal bones, Roman remains, human remains from the infamous ‘Bedlam’ psychiatric hospital and remnants of Britain’s industrial past. In a major new exhibition ‘Tunnel: The Archaeology of Crossrail’, at the Museum of London Docklands, opening on 10th February, the complete range of archaeological objects unearthed by Crossrail will be exposed to the public for the first time. The wide variety of items on display will reveal the stories of Londoners ranging from Mesolithic toolmakers and inhabitants of Roman Londinium to those affected by the Great Plague of 1665. These finds were discovered in locations as diverse as suburban Abbey Wood in the south east, through Canary Wharf, across to Liverpool Street, Tottenham Court Road and ending in Westbourne Park and Acton. The artefacts will be displayed alongside the story of this great feat of engineering; the largest infrastructure project currently underway in Europe.
A rare opportunity for the public, this year we are invited to explore the spaces beneath our feet. We are encouraged to discover a secret subterranean past and unearth the amazing stories of the people who are connected with it. From tours of London’s most intriguing underground spaces, to an exhibition of one of the UK’s largest excavations projects, a hidden world will be uncovered. Subterranean London is open for visitors.
Tunnel: The Archaeology of Crossrail opens on the 10th February and runs until the 3rd September at the Museum of London, Docklands.
The Postal Museum and Rail Mail opens later this year. Sign up on their website postalmuseum.org for updates.
Hidden London Tour tickets are on sale now through the London Transport Museum. More tickets will be released later in the year. Sign up on their website www.ltmuseum.co.uk for further details.